Paul Simon. Photo credit: Kevin Mazur
Friday evening was the last evening of a three-night event held at the Frederick P. Rose Theater for the benefit of Jazz at Lincoln Center. The event was in honor of J.A.L.C. Board Chairman, Lisa Schiff, for her years of dedicated service, and celebrated her receipt of The Ed Bradley Award for leadership in jazz. The master songwriter Paul Simon and his band was joined by Wynton Marsalis and the JALC orchestra for this special event, with Simon's incredibly durable and diverse songbook the basis of the performance.
I have always enjoyed Mr. Simon's music, from his early days of folk with former collaborator Art Garfunkel, through his imaginative and ever-expanding solo career. Simon's music has been amazingly fresh and arguably timeless. Always a lyricist with something to say, it has been his eclectic musical progression that has been so extraordinary. Throughout his career he has employed an amazing variation of musical elements into his work including folk, rock, jazz, zydeco, reggae, a cappella, Tex-Mex and Afro-Brazilian as well as various regional African musical influences including mbaqanga, baticuda, bikutsi and iscathamiya.
On this evening of celebration, Mr. Simon was joined by his own band, as well as Mr. Marsalis and the accomplished JALC orchestra. The performance started with "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes." From Mr. Simon's 1986 Graceland album and arranged by JALC bassist Carlos Henriquez. The vocal harmonies between Simon and his fellow guitarists Mark Stewart and Vincent Nuigini were multi-timbred and mellifluous. Mr. Nuigini's Cameroonian guitar riffs kept the infectious rhythm floating.
Mr. Simon's voice is surprisingly sonorous for a man now approaching his seventy-second year, a man who is remarkably comfortable in his own skin. Simon was casually dressed in an open collared, un-tucked shirt loosely flowing under an unbuttoned jacket. Throughout the evening there was no doubt that Simon was in total command of the proceedings.
Mr. Marsalis, for his part, played a deliberately low-keyed role. Inconspicuously seated with the trumpet section of his marvelously competent JALC orchestra, he was for the most part just another member of his orchestra, occasionally providing a rousing muted or open trumpet solo. The combination of Mr. Simon's band and Mr. Marsalis' Orchestra was rhythmically resplendent featuring up to four percussionists including JALC's drummer Ali Jackson, Simon drummer Jim Oblon, percussionist Jamey Haddad on Congas, and occasionally Mick Rossi on Timbales.
The program continued with "Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover" from Simon's Still Crazy After All These Years from 1975. The song was arranged by JALC trumpeter Marcus Printup and featured some great trombone solos by Vincent Gardner and Chris Crenshaw.
"Slip Sliding Away" was an easy, familiar swinger deftly arranged by Mr. Marsalis. Beaming in the back row, you could see he was enjoying the way his orchestration was sounding as he bopped his head to the music when he wasn't busy playing his trumpet.
JALC drummer Ali Jackson arranged "Further to Fly" from Simon's The Rhytmn of the Saints from 1973. The song featured an inspired flute solo by Ted Nash and a growling, plunger-muted solo by Mr. Marsalis on this Serengeti evoking musical journey. Mr. Simon looked on obviously pleased.
"Crazy Love," another song from Simon's marvelous Graceland album, was arranged by JALC's talented multi-reed player Ted Nash. Simon's saxophonist Andy Snitzer was featured on a soprano saxophone solo.
The New Orlean's singer Aaron Neville came on stage for the next three numbers. Simon's "Take Me to the Mardi Gras" featured Simon and Neville trading lines in matching falsettos. Neville was featured solo on Huey Smith's "Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Blues" the only song on the entire program not written by Simon.
The classic "Bridge Over Troubled Waters" from Simon's 1970 album of the same name was left for Neville to sing. While certainly an accomplished performer, I am personally not a fan of Neville's quivering falsetto and I was disappointed at the extent to which he embellished the lyrics with his vocal acrobatics. The audience apparently disagreed as he was given a standing ovation.
Paul Simon and Wynton Marsalis. Photo credit: Kevin Mazur
After Mr.Neville's departure, Mr. Marsalis used the lull in the proceedings to speak directly to the audience. He spoke of the mutual respect and camaraderie that he and his orchestra had for Mr. Simon and his band. The two groups had only three days of rehearsal to prepare for this event and it was obvious that both men respected the professionalism and as Mr.Marsalis intimated the "cool" of each other's musicians. In a moment of genuine and unrestrained high praise, Marsalis likened his experience with Mr. Simon to his previous experience with the late Miles Davis, two men completely comfortable with their own musical identities and inextricably woven into the fabric of the American songbook. Mr. Simon, obviously moved, deflected the attention with humor, quipping that he wrote the Davis speech for Mr. Marsalis.
A poignant duo of Mr. Simon on vocal and acoustic guitar and Mr. Marsalis on trumpet was featured on the iconic "Sounds of Silence." The somber tone was quickly transformed by saxophonist Sherman Irby's arrangement of Simon's jumpin' "Kodachrome" from the 1973 album There Goes Rhymn' Simon. The diminutive Mr. Simon is a subtle but effective showman, raising his arms to the music and play-acting the part of the rabble-rousing gospel preacher as he bellows "Momma don't take my Kodachrome away." A stirring trumpet solo by Marcus Printup was the icing on the cake.
"Late in the Evening" was arranged by bassist Henriquez and had a tropical, Copacabana sway. A high register Sandoval-like trumpet solo from Marcus Printup gave way to a stirring conga solo by percussionist Jamey Haddad and had the audience grooving.
The finale was one of Simon's earliest and most recognizable compositions "The Boxer" from his 1970 album Bridge Over Troubled Waters. The entire band and many of the audience singing the refrain "Li La Li" in unison that demonstrated just how much Simon's music has permanently touched a generation. The audience gave the troubadour and the accompanying musicians a well deserved and rousing standing ovation. The evening was a easily one of this year's musical highlights that will not long be forgotten by those who were lucky enough to attend. A musical coup for Mr. Marsalis and the JALC.
In preparing for this article I was surprised by the eclectic depth, the quality and the durability of Mr. Simon's canon of work. If you really consider some of the greatest songwriters of the last 40 years -- Lennon & McCartney, Burt Bacharach, Antonio Carlos Jobim and Stevie Wonder to name a few -- Paul Simon certainly deserves to be considered in this top tier. In fact he alone has expanded his musical palette by introducing more disparate musical genres into his work than any of his peers. In this he has no equal.
Paul Simon Band: Paul Simon, guitars/vocals; Mark Stewart, guitars, cello,vocals; Andrew Snitzer, saxophones, vocals; Mick Rossi, keyboards, accordion; Jim Oblon,drums; Vincent Nguuini, guitars, vocals; Bakithi Kumalo, bass, guitars, vocals; Jamey Haddad, congas,percussion; Anthony Cedras,accordion, trumpet, keyboards, vibes.
Special Guest Vocalist: Aaron Neville
Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra: Wynton Marsalis, trumpet and musical director; Ryan Kisor, trumpet; Kenny Rampton, trumpet; Marcus Printup, trumpet; Vincent Gardner, trombone; Chris Crenshaw, trombone;Elliot Mason, trombone;Sherman Irby, Alto Saxophone; Ted Nash Alto, tenor and soprano saxophones, flute and piccolo; Victor Goines, tenor and soprano saxophone and clarinet; Walter Blanding, tenor and barritone saxophones; Joe Temperly, baritone and tenor saxophones; Dan Nimmer, piano; Carrlos Henriquez, bass; Ali Jackson, drums.